Tuesday 3 May 2022

Written as a companion to Brahm's Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano, William Bolcom's trio is a powerful work given a compelling performance

William Bolcom: Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, Suite No. 2 for solo violin; Steven Gross, Philip Ficsor, Constantine Finehouse; Naxos

William Bolcom: Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin; Steven Gross, Philip Ficsor, Constantine Finehouse; Naxos
Reviewed 29 April 2022 (★★★★)

Commissioned as a companion to Brahms' trio, Bolcom's powerful new work is a terrific, and here accompanied by the imaginative violin suite written for Gil Shaham.

I first came across William Bolcom as a pianist, accompanying his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris in incomparable recordings of Gershwin and others. I have since enjoyed his cabaret songs and heard his operas on disc but remain woefully underinformed about his non-cabaret music. On this terrific new disc from Naxos, Steven Gross (horn), Philip Ficsor (violin) and Constantine Finehouse (piano) perform William Bolcom's Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (2017) and his Suite No. 2 for solo violin (2011).

Brahms' 1865 Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano represents the pinnacle of a genre for which there is not much repertoire. Horn player Steven Gross commissioned William Bolcom to write a new work for the line-up. Gross says of the work, "Bolcom wrote the piece during the 2016 United States presidential election, and the music bears witness to his sense of desperation at the vitriolic discourse that emerged. However, the piece transcends this occasion and stands as a soaring statement about resilience in times of adversity."

The first movement, 'Plodding, implacably controlled' features a slow, steady and implacable piano tread over which the horn and the violin unwind intense harmonies. It is a powerful and remarkable movement. Bolcom's language is on the edges of tonal, satisfying yet edgy and complex. The second movement, 'Headlong, brutal' plunges straight in with energy that is by turns manic and angry. Then at the end the energy suddenly disappears and the movement evaporates in a series of eerie chords. The third movement, 'As if from far away: misterioso' begins with a horn call, evocative and intense with small contributions from the other two instruments, this develops in intensity, with a series of interactions between the instruments almost in pairs. 'Quick March: Very controlled and resolute' forms a rather tightly controlled finale, its spiky march bringing out hints of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale and indeed one can almost imagine a dramatic scenario behind this wonderful music. 

For all the work's imagination and variety, this is highly serious and intense music, yet it is written in a way which is profoundly satisfying to apprehend, along with an imaginative approach to timbre and texture. It is perhaps noticeable that the violin gets somewhat less to do at times than horn and piano, and I did wonder whether this was the composer's response to the different capabilities of volume of the modern instruments. The three performers, who have performed the trio extensively, give a masterly and compelling performance.

Bolcom wrote his Suite No. 2 for solo violin in 2011 for violinist Gil Shahan. The suite is in nine movements which loosely evoke the dance elements of the Baroque suite, though despite some skittishness along the way, the music has highly serious intent to it. The rhapsodic Morning Music suggests a serious element to waking up, leading to Dancing in Place where the dance elements are more obvious with hints perhaps of a hoe-down. Northern Nigun is a slow, intense lament in the form of an apparently endlessly unfolding melody. Of the third movement, Lenny in Spats, Bolcom says it, "describes a fanciful image of Leonard Bernstein dressed as Fred Astaire or Jack Buchanan in tuxedo, white spats covering his patent leather uppers and dancing with a cane", but this is no light Jack Buchanan-esque melody, instead the short movement calls for the violin to dazzle with its technical prowess. Tempo di gavotte manages to be intriguing as Bolcom writes uneven rhythms that are a long way from the Baroque dance and there are hints of Bartok even. Barcarolle is ostensibly more straightforward, yet still a technical challenge for the player with skittish moments amidst the lyrical swaying. Fuga manages to be highly imaginative in the way Bolcom handles writing a fugue for a violin solo, but also rather compelling with a highly chromatic subject that racks up the intensity. Tarantella has a relentless quality to it, but there is also a skittish element too. We end with Evening Music, almost as if we are coming full circle, back to the music of the opening.

I enjoyed both works on the disc, but it is the trio to which I will return; a profoundly powerful work given a compelling performance.

William Bolcom (born 1938) - Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (2017) [15:29]
William Bolcom - Suite No. 2 for solo violin (2011) [24:53]
Steven Gross (horn)
Philip Ficsor (violin)
Constantine Finehouse (piano) 
Recorded 20-22 August 2018 at Martinu Hall, Liechtenstein Palace, Prague, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.579102 1CD [40:26]

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